Let’s talk Gold… Goldwork embroidery: a rich history part I

blog Couching embroidery Goldworkembroidery Opus Anglicanum Or Nue

afb 1 goldwork embroidery d. balfoortLet’s talk Gold…Goldwork embroidery: a rich history part I

Finally, this blog will cover one of my most favorite embroidery techniques on the planet, Goldwork embroidery! With so many embroidery techniques around, this always seems to attract the most people. When I share a small goldwork sample on social media, the positive responds and likes are tremendous. Is it the lustrous shine? Could it be the tiny cutwork? Or is it the variety of textures you can add with metal threads?

It is fascinating to see what happens if you incorporate metal threads into a design. To see the effects of light when altering the direction of the laid threads or stitching over padding is absolutely amazing.
Gold has always been a symbol of wealth, prosperity and status. The embroidery that used to incorporate real gold and silver thread was truly expensive and was therefore reserved for the wealthiest on earth.

Although gold embroidery has a great appeal, due to the shine and glitter of the materials, many people are not so sure what gold embroidery is and how it is processed. Is the technique still used today?

This mini-series answers these questions. Part I is about the rich history and different techniques of this intriguing embroidery form.

afb 2 Phoenix  Queen Elizabeth I d. balfoort

But first…what is Goldwork embroidery?

Gold embroidery is working with metallic (imitation) threads. These threads are metal filaments wrapped around a silk or a synthetic core. Since you are working with heavier materials, you usually attach (couch) the metal threads on the fabric instead of sticking them through the fabric. Like you would do with regular embroidery floss or yarns. In English, the technique is therefore called "surface embroidery".

Gold embroidery has been processed in various ways throughout history. Among other things, it can be used in embroidery and appliqué. For this purpose, patterns were specially developed. These designs are than embroidered with gold and silver threads and alternated with embroidery silk and gems. This mix of materials gives an extra dimension, shine and tension to the work.

Now the term gold embroidery is a misleading term because you a) do not work with 100% gold nowadays and b) because the materials are available in many colors while it is still called gold embroidery.

How and where did the technique originate?

For this we must go back approximately 2000 years. Unfortunately, the exact date cannot be traced back, but we do know that the first pieces with gold embroidery probably originated in Asia and from there, spread to the West with the silk merchants via the silk route. Gold embroidery was also used in Europe, Great Britain, Scandinavia and North America via North Africa.

*Goldwork embroidery was a specialized skill and highly prized. To maintain a high standard of workmanship, embroiderers where placed under strict conditions. Work could only be carried out after completion of an obliged 8 to 10-year apprenticeship. (could you imagine?!)

Embroidery could only be done by daylight, not candlelight and to ensure proper training; workshop owners were only allowed a limited number of apprentices. The quality of the gold was closely scrutinised and workers risked having their work destroyed if inferior metal was used.

(*source A-Z of Goldwork search press classics)

Over the years, different applications and styles have emerged within gold embroidery. I will mention a few:

Opus Anglicanum: also known as ‘English work’ is a style which was frequently applied to clothing, banners or altarpieces within the English Anglican church. Gold and silver thread were processed on a rich velvet or linen background. The main characteristics of Opus Anglicanum are the figurative religious scenes. Worked largely in split stitch and using colored silks as well as the extensive use of underside couching for the background. This form of gold embroidery reached its peak production in England during the Middle Ages between 1350 and 1450 and was widely applied in Europe to the clothing and interiors of royalty, nobility and of a later stage military uniforms and badges.

Underside couching: the gold thread is not attached to the right side of the fabric but to the ‘wrong’ side. The precious embroidery was thereby better protected by the friction of wearing. This technique was widely used within the Opus Anglicanum style.

afb 3 chasuble opus anglicanum

Or nué: by attaching gold thread close together, using different colors of thread and stitch widths, an image is created. Images of saints, especially their clothes, where often embroidered using this technique on church items such as banners, altar hangings, cloaks and chasubles. This type of gold embroidery was immensely popular in France, Belgium and the Netherlands and is sometimes even called the Dutch technique (Lazuurwerk)

afb 4 detail of or nue d balfoort

Military and ceremonial gold embroidery: Only high ranked military officers could wear highly decorated uniforms. Collars, sleeves and epaulets were richly decorated with gold-colored cord and metal wire in the most beautiful patterns. You can imagine how heavy all that material must have been for the wearer!
Today, uniforms are still decorated with gold embroidery, but it has more of a ceremonial function and fortunately the materials are a lot less heavy. In England, this work is done by Hand and Lock, (bron noemen als een noot) who also makes embroidery for fashion houses and royalty.

afb 5 detail of military attire d balfoort

So much for this introduction to gold embroidery. Part II will deal with which materials are used for gold embroidery and how they are processed on fabric.

A Dutch version of this blog can be find at the site of Modemuze


Website Textile Research Centre Leiden (trc-leiden.nl)
First image: Detail modern goldwork emboidery D. Balfoort

Image 2: Elizabeth I wears a black work chemise and partlet and a gown embroidered with gold thread and studded with pearls. The Phoenix Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575–76/ Tate modern

Image 3: Chasuble Opus Anglicanum The Chichester Constable Chasuble ca. 1335-45. 2016. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image 4: Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam NL, Fragment of a aurifries, with goldwork embroidery and silk, anonymous, ca. 1550

Image 5: left Jacket c 1880 Bosnia, Silk velvet, embroidered with metal thread, trimmed with silk chiffon, and lined with silk damask collection Victoria and Albert museum Londen II right image uniform with goldwork made by Hand & Lock London

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